Hogging the Climate Change Gravy Train

by | Apr 23, 2009

Nearly two years ago, we wrote a post about ‘research’ emerging from the London School of Hygiene and Tropical Medicine, showing that fat people contribute disproportionately to climate change.

True to the commandments of environmentalism – Reduce, Re-Use, Recycle – the researchers have put a new spin on their old stuff. Why bother doing new research when you can pass the same old leftovers to hungry newsrooms? The BBC wolfed it down whole without chewing, for their article 1970s lifestyle ‘protects planet’:

Getting back to the relatively slim, trim days of the 1970s would help to tackle climate change, researchers say.

The rising numbers of people who are overweight and obese in the UK means the nation uses 19% more food than 40 years ago, a study suggests.

That could equate to an extra 60 mega tonnes of greenhouse gas emissions a year, the team calculated.

This ‘calculation’ must come at the end of a great deal of science… you would expect, wouldn’t you? But the article published in this month’s issue of the International Journal of Epidemiology (full paper available here) might just as well have been written in ketchup on the back of a hamburger wrapper. It simply puts a few theoretically not-entirely-implausible numbers to the same old argument that fat people are killing the polar bears:

In 2000, the total global emission of GHGs was 42 Giga tonnes (GT) of carbon dioxide equivalents, for a world population of 6 billion. One billion people might therefore be considered responsible for 7 GT of carbon dioxide equivalents per year. Since food production by the agricultural sector accounts for 20% of total GHG emissions, food production might account for 1.4 GT (20%) of the 7 GT per year for the normal population. A 19% increase in food consumption by an overweight population would therefore result in an increase in GHG emissions to 1.67 GT per year—an absolute increase of 0.27 GT per year.

A snarktastic commentary from The Register exposes how the researchers’ calculations are fraught with technical problems:

Public-health researchers in London have come up with a new plan to save the planet: wealthy westerners should all reduce by several inches in height by starving their children. This would not only save food, but make people much lighter, meaning that cars and buses would use less fuel. [etc]

The research paper itself is only marginally less funny:

Compared with the normal population, we would expect the overweight population to have higher transportation fuel energy use because of the additional fuel energy needed to transport heavier people. The proportionate increase in fuel energy use (and thus GHG emissions) due to a person’s weight per kilometre is estimated as car weight plus half the mass of the person, divided by car weight (Leonard Evans, personal communication) […] we assumed that all individuals with BMI < 30 kg/m2 use an average small car (e.g. Ford Fiesta) and that individuals with BMI 30 kg/m2 use a car with more internal space (e.g. Ford Galaxy). The Ford Fiesta weighs 1530 kg and produces 147 gCO2 per km, whereas the Ford Galaxy weighs 2415 kg and produces 197 gCO2 per km.

Heavier people tend to eat more, and require more energy to move, you see? And to drive cars named after chocolate bars.

But it’s not the numbers that are important here. The authors conclude:

We argue that increased population adiposity, because of its contribution to climate change from additional food and transport GHG emissions, should be recognized as an environmental problem.

These researchers made their point several years ago. Yes, in some very theoretical way, fat people must indeed contribute disproportionately to climate change. But it is at this inconsequential factoid that this inconsequential research ceases to be of use to mankind’s progress. That its producers trot it out again, and again, and again, each time to a press that laps up with credulity the salacious headline that fat-people are planet-killers, surely represents one thing: the desire to explain everything in terms of its relation to the issue of climate change.

At one end, this tendency represents a rather naked attempt to position oneself as a relevant player in the climate debate to secure a research budget. But there may be more to it, because at the other end, this may reflect the increasing influence of environmental ideology. Accordingly, this research is either a self-serving, cynical attempt to use the obesity issue for self-gain, or it is the ignorant work of ‘scientists’ who have failed to eliminate the social prejudice and values they bring to their research.

It might also be wondered what was so good about the 1970s. It was a terrible decade for people throughout the world, but especially in the UK. Things got so bad that the country had to ask the IMF for a loan, and businesses were instructed to operate for only three days a week. The decade was characterised by strike after strike after strike. Even gravediggers went on strike in Liverpool, meaning coffins were literally stacked up while the families of the bereaved waited to give them funerals. London’s landmarks were used as storage for rubbish, because refuse collection workers went on strike, leading to an epidemic of rats. Manufacturing decline and economic stagnation left millions unemployed, and the political conflicts endured well into the 80s. These are the circumstances which produced the ‘healthy’ diet of the 1970s – perhaps it was because people were poor that they ate less meat and fat. That is not a good thing, and arguably, it is a worse thing than being slim is good. The myopia of the researchers intending to bring public health and environmental issues to bear on public policy is similarly a dangerous thing. Bloated on their own self-importance, they create the basis on which authority can interfere with people’s lives while simultaneously relinquishing themselves of the responsibility for improving their conditions.


  1. George Carty

    Bloated on their own self-importance, they create the basis on which authority can interfere with people’s lives while simultaneously relinquishing themselves of the responsibility for improving their conditions.

    My hypothesis is that as manufacturing industries in Western countries (the main private-sector habitat of the labour movement) were ravaged by competition from low-wage countries, the labour movement became dominated by public-sector interests – this was accentuated in Britain by New Labour creating loads of (often useless) public-sector jobs to soak up the resulting unemployed workers.

    These public-sector interests have a vested interest in having the government micromanage people’s lives – it means more jobs for them…

  2. Editors

    George – ‘the labour movement became dominated by public-sector interests’

    In Britain, the labour movement has seen massive decline since the 1970s. Since its reinvention as New Labour, the same constituency is not represented by any political party.

    It would be hard to say that the Labour movement has been a decisive factor in the rise of environmentalism in the UK. It would be much easier, on the other hand, to argue that the rise of environmentalism owes something to the decline of the Labour movement. After all, it was after Thatcher’s defeat of the unions that the UK began to look at climate policies and sustainable development.

    We may well say that New Labour are responsible for the creation of public-sector jobs, but it would be inaccurate to make equivalents of New Labour and the labour movement. New Labour are historically isolated from their traditional base, and from anything that can be reasonably described as a ‘movement’.

    In the last quarter of 2008, there were 5,783,000 public sector jobs in the UK. When Labour came to power in 1997, there were 5,179,000. So we could say that, yes, New Labour created many public service jobs – around 600,000. But when Major began his role as PM after Thatcher, there were 5,983,000 public service jobs. So it cannot be argued that, historically speaking, New Labour, or the labour movement are responsible for creating more of these roles.

    We do not disagree that New Labour has been the most toxic and micromanaging Government. But it would be a mistake, we believe, to imagine that the Conservatives or Liberals would have been, or will be any different.

    As we have pointed out before, the Conservatives responded to Labour’s pledge to reduce CO2 emissions by 60% by 2050 by upping the figure to 80%. After an ‘independent’ committee of scientists and economists was established to make recommendations to Parliament (the Climate Change Committee) the Conservatives target was implemented.

    The point here is not to say one end of the political spectrum is less green than the other – because all parties are trying to prove themselves greener-than-them.

    The point is that, just as union membership has fallen, so has interest in politics and membership of political parties, Right, Left, and Centre. People no longer engage with politics in the way that they did in previous eras. This has left all political parties with a massive problem: how to legitimise their roles, and how to generate policies with which to sell themselves to the public.

    Accordingly, anything that looks like a plausible crisis can be milked for political capital, just by saying ‘look, here’s this crisis coming, that only our policies can save you from – the other parties will kill your kids’.

    As the saying goes, if climate change didn’t exist, they’d have to invent it. Environmentalism, which has been around for many years, was able to assert itself in this era because it simply had conceived of the best crisis: thermageddon. It didn’t appeal to the public, but to the leaders of the atrophying Labour, Liberal, and Conservative parties, it has been a boon. It gives a framework from which to organise their policies, none of which are distinct in terms of their core ‘logic’, even if they differ slightly in style.

  3. Ian Wilson

    I’m going to eat more pork pies than normal today, so I can happily say I’ve done my bit.

    Given that I run a lot, and therefore eat a lot for calorie purposes (more than average certainly) and I also eat a lot of meat.

    But I’m not fat at all (BMI of 22 for what its worth), does that make me a good or a bad person?

  4. Kat Funt

    Rock fans use up more carbon then they need to – travel, big stage shows tons of electric – Tshirts (from what sweatshop?) printed and transported – hifi’s mp3 players – you can turn the carbon blame game on anyone or use it to elevate ones self designated moral position; “oh I don’t drive much” etc

    essentially trying to evaluate moral issues using a gas molecule is completely barking

    If Environmentalism is to some extent a secular religion then this must constitute part of its numerology

  5. 1stmanonthesun

    The Register article puts me in mind of the satirical pamphlet by Jonathan Swift, ‘A Modest Proposal’, published in 1729 (see http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/A_modest_proposal).

    In it, he suggests with a straight face (but tongue firmly in cheek) that the problems of poverty in Ireland could be solved by selling their children to the rich for food, and goes on to detail some tasty recipes.

    Many people took Swift’s satirical work seriously. Three centuries on, substitute ‘poverty in Ireland’ for ‘climate change’, and The Register’s satirical suggestion is probably closer to being taken as a sensible proposal than one would care to admit.

  6. Kriek Jooste

    At the beginning of the 70’s, about 55% of men and 44% of women in the UK were smokers. I suspect this had a big role to play with how thin people were then. Perhaps Dr Phil Edwards and company are being sponsored by the tobacco lobby who wants us all to smoke again ;-)


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